ATLANTA -- A group of influential North Carolina business and government leaders has endorsed a 20-year, $1.7 billion transportation plan for a five-county area surrounding Charlotte, N.C.

Last Thursday, the steering committee of the Transportation/Transit Committee of 100 approved a proposal to fund the plan with a one-cent increase in sales taxes levied in the participating counties, the group's chairman, Bill Simms, said yesterday.

"There have been other efforts at transportation planning in the region that have addressed various pieces of the problem," said Simms, who is also president of Transportation Reinsurance Co. in Charlotte. "What we have done is to seek a comprehensive solution."

Lynn Purnell, the group's planning director, said that the proposed sales tax revenues would be spent in the county in which they are levied, with individual counties determining which projects are important.

Purnell, who is also Charlotte's transportation planning manager, said that bonds would probably play a role to help leverage building of the projects, which are expected to be launched by 1996.

Besides Mecklenburg County, which surrounds Charlotte, officials from four other North Carolina counties -- Gaston, Cabarrus, Union, and Iredell -- are participating in the plan, Purnell said.

York County in South Carolina has also expressed interest, but is unlikely to approve a sales tax as a funding source, Purnell said. North Carolina's sales tax is currently capped at six cents.

Use of the revenues would allow quicker completion of important local projects, such as an outer beltway around Charlotte, as well as a renewed emphasis on rapid transit projects, Purnell noted.

An important part of the project, he said, would be identifying the key roads connecting the five counties, with a view to establishing an interregional transportation network.

The group, made up of 100 business and local leaders, has been meeting since late last summer. At that time, Purnell said, the group set up five subcommittees to focus on road needs, mass transit, environmental issues, land use planning, and intergovernmental finance.

Last Thursday's meeting followed a recommendation in July by the group's finance committee setting the tab at $1.7 billion and the sales tax as the funding source.

The next step is approval of the finance plan by the full committee, followed by backing from the county commissioners in the region. The sales tax increase would be sought in the 1995 session of North Carolina's legislature, which meets in January.

According to Purnell, Mecklenburg County would receive more than $1.2 billion from the plan. Of that, $550 million would be spent on a new light-rail system and $450 million on highway projects. Another $200 million would be targeted for buses and car pool facilities. In addition, about $70 million would go toward environmental programs such as bicycle paths and projects to increase the efficiency of public transportation.

The committee's work this year caps at least five years of efforts to set up a regional transportation initiative in the Charlotte area, according to local officials.

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